What to Know When Shopping for an Electric Car

Shopping for car in large car lot

Whether you own or are shopping for an electric car or not, if you live in an area with a high density of electric vehicles—or EVs, also commonly called plug-ins—you may know something about the culture: the politics and strife around charging stations, the debate about how “green” EVs really are, and so on. And while Silicon Valley might have EVs (and autonomous vehicles) aplenty, many of us wouldn’t know a charging station if we tripped over it. It seems that, culturally, American towns and cities are quite uneven when it comes to how much we’ve embraced the culture of electric vehicles and plug-in/gasoline hybrids.

Over seven years ago, in the fall of 2008, President Obama called for one million EVs on the road by today. We’ve fallen far short of that goal, with just 330,000 EVs on American roads. That means just under .1% of the adult population in the U.S. drives an EV (there’s about 1 EV for every 745 U.S. adults). It’s not surprising, then, that when a potential EV customer goes into a dealership, their experiences vary widely, and sometimes take a turn for the surprising.

Why Dealers Don’t Like to Sell Electric:

In November, The New York Times explored why the U.S. still has so few plug-ins on the road. Lack of dealer enthusiasm and knowledge about EVs, they argue, is a major reason more people don’t drive them. The NYT spoke to a BMW salesman, Kyle Gray, and summarized his thoughts: “Salespeople who have spent years understanding combustion cars don’t have time to learn about a technology that represents a fraction of overall sales, and the sales process takes more time because the technology is new, cutting into commissions.”

Charging electric car
Another, perhaps more insidious, reason dealers aren’t selling more EVs has to do with profits: the NYT wrote: “Industry insiders and those who follow the business closely say that dealers may also be worrying about their bottom lines. They assert that electric vehicles do not offer dealers the profits that gas-powered cars do. They take more time to sell because of the explaining required, which hurts overall sales and commissions. Electric vehicles also may require less maintenance, undermining the biggest source of dealer profits: their service departments.”

EVs don't offer dealers the profits that gas-powered cars do & take more time to explain, hurting overall sales & commissions.

Consumer Experiences Buying EVs

We spoke to some electric vehicle shoppers and owners and asked them for their experiences.

Mike Rabkin, of From Car to Finish, which helps its customers find and negotiate to buy cars, has negotiated on behalf of his customers for plug-in hybrids like the Ford Fusion Energi. Rabkin says, in his experience, “The dealers treated it like any other vehicle.” Rabkin explained: “It was shopped in the LA area, where there were plenty of dealers competing locally, so they knew the customer had other dealers to choose from, which kept them all honest.”

Jeff Wilson, HGTV host and author of The Greened House Effect, told Quoted that the most surprising thing about shopping for his electric vehicle was the price: “I was looking for a used Prius for my wife when this used Volt popped up at a nearby dealer. It was priced so reasonably that I figured it had to have been wrecked (or flooded). However, when I checked the Carfax report, it showed a one-owner, clean-titled car. I thought, ‘What gives? This is a nearly $40,000 vehicle brand new, it’s only got 70,000 miles on it, and it’s two years old.’” Wilson later confirmed with the dealer that the car had been “originally purchased by GE Capital and then leased to a corporation as a fleet vehicle.” Wilson explained, “GE Capital bought tons of these cars, likely for the tax credit (and so companies could claim “green-ness”), leased them out, and then sold them to dealers at auction after the lease ran out.” The dealer told Wilson that his dealership gets one Volt at a time. “Sometimes they go right away, sometimes they take a month or two, but they always sell.”

If you’re ever in the market for the premium electric Tesla, though, you’re unlikely to run into any dealership issues, as they are all sold directly from the factory.

Man with car key in hand

Tips for Your EV Shopping Experience

John O’Dell, from Edmunds.com notes that even if the dealer’s EV knowledge isn’t up to snuff, consumers can still have a positive and happy EV buying experience. His tips:

  • The first thing in PEV (plug-in electric vehicle) shopping, as in shopping for any type of vehicle, is to know what you want, or to at least have a couple of candidates on your shopping list.

  • It’s possible that the salesperson you’ll be dealing with won’t know about all of the available incentives for a plug-in electric car. See Edmunds incentives research for help.

  • You don’t have to understand the mysteries of electricity to shop for a PEV, but at the very least you’ll want to understand kilowatts. PEVs rely on battery power for some or all of their power, and battery capacity is measured in kilowatts, not those familiar “gallons” that help us determine the fuel efficiency and range of conventional cars. Don’t count on every salesperson to be a kilowatt expert.

  • Most dealerships that sell PEVs will be able to recommend one or more types of charging stations, which are more formally known as electric vehicle service equipment (EVSE). Carmakers often have deals with EVSE suppliers for sales, financing and installation of a particular brand or brands. These often are good deals that can save you time and money by packaging the charging station and its installation into a single bundle. But you aren’t tied to the station that the dealership might want to sell you, and if you shop around in advance, you’ll be able to compare prices for a station that the dealership offers.

  • Make sure you understand the basics of on-the-road charging, as “most dealerships are not well versed in the availability of on-the-road charging.” Edmunds recommends checking out PlugInCars for tips.

And finally, before you go to the dealership, check out O’Dell’s recommended PEV test drive tips here.